Thursday June 1st, 2017
The Hebden Bridge Fell Race is the second of three fell races I’d earmarked for the year – four including Kilnsey, but that’s not happening now. Following my reasonable efforts in the Dick Hudson Fell Race on Ilkley Moor, I made it my intention to enter this race not just for the challenge, nor the experience, but to get back up that hill to visit the great black obelisk, Stoodley Pike, a site I visited on a walk in the summer of 2016 that really livened my spirit for journeying away from man and beast, if just for a few hours. Organised by the Todmorden Harriers, this race has attracted runners regionally and nationally since 2006, held on the first Thursday of each June and was now in its 11th consecutive year.
Unlike Ilkley, I didn’t get chance to recce the course – general life got in the way, and I found myself unable to commit to a morning or afternoon to navigate the course. Nonetheless, I had previously experienced the hills above the town on my adventures last year, so I had some background knowledge and was able to use my OS Map to study the course. I signed up a few days before the race without hesitation and for the first time was able to mark myself as a Halifax Harrier – although as a FRA (Fell Runners Association) race and not a UK Athletics race, the discount didn’t apply. £5 (or £6) is cheap as chips to enter a race, an attractive price for anyone from experienced runners to those new to the fells.
It was a gloriously sunny evening in Hebden Bridge, as evidenced by the blazing sunshine beaming down on Calder Holmes Park. I took the time to take in the sunshine, the River Calder, and head for a quick warm up jog out and back, clocking no more than half a mile. By 7:20pm, we were gathering the other side of the Station Road bridge, facing down where the start line was positioned.
I did feel a sense of pride wearing my vest this particular evening – my first race not as an enthusiastic unattached runner, or as a charity runner – I was now part of a group. Although I’m fairly sure I only noticed one other Halifax vest, with many runners drawn from Todmorden (of course), the stripey Calder Valley Fell Runners, and there even seemed to be more Manchester Frontrunners in attendance. Nonetheless, I was on the start line, that’s what mattered.
Off we went. Immediately, something didn’t feel right. It seemed like nerves. Possibly because of the knee, but I got caught out by the pace of the start, and was overtaken on the inside by a good few runners. We then began the climb up through the woodland, which often bottlenecked and allowed for plenty of pauses to power walk and conserve energy. Once escaping the woodland, I seem to recall a narrow path which soon became a mix of flat and hilly sections, my speed at which quickened or slowed accordingly as I tried to traverse the terrain. My shoes weren’t helping – more than once I had to step to the side to tighten them as they didn’t seem to be supporting my heels so well – thankfully rectified by the halfway point – and so I struggled to maintain any real momentum, although I was gaining ground as the race ascended another level.
Before long, I was really starting to have problems climbing the terrain. I’m in tune with power walking and perfectly happy to use this method on a particularly steep hill, but as Stoodley Pike loomed ahead as to my right, I had very little power in my quads, and the result was an exhausted trudge to make the final metres to the top. Even on the final approach to Stoodley, I was struggling to maintain any momentum over what was really a perfectly surmountable hill. I mustered the strength to get to the top, touch the Pike itself and then head back, mercifully, down the hill again. At least now I could try and gather some momentum.
For the next mile or so, I seemed to go alright, occasionally interchanging places with other runners and making a fist of being competitive in the midfield. Towards the end though, my lack of experience started to show on the steeper sections, as foot placement on protruding roots became tricker, the inclines a little steeper, and I would have to cede one or two more places as the race returned through the woodland back to Calder Holmes Park.
To compound matters, there were one or two more roads which contained hills. Even after spending a long time coming down, I continued to struggle to ascend normally routine hills. It was similar to the Dovestone Edge run I did about 9 months ago – on that occasion I got to 13 miles before my quads gave up! Needless to say I felt pretty shattered, physically and psychologically by it all. Finally returning to the canal, I mustered one last hard effort to ensure I didn’t lose any more places. I crossed the line and promptly felt an overwhelming sense, not of accomplishment, but disappointment. A serious case of ‘that was fucking crap‘ overcame me, as I sat myself down on the deck. Not the race itself, but pretty much everything about how it went.
(I don’t often use curse words on my blog but that’s how I honestly assessed my performance. I wasn’t holding back!)
I took myself back to Machpelah, where I cleaned the mud off my legs (a bit), got changed into my Snowdonia Marathon t-shirt and opted to indulge in some fruit juice and ginger cake. I could have had a beer for £3, but what was there to celebrate really? I didn’t feel much like drinking alcohol, and even the slight surprise of finishing 35th (in a time of 54:53) did little to raise my spirits towards the race. I gladly made the short trip back to the train station before heading home.
Had I written this in this immediate aftermath of the race, I could have come across far more negative than what I am about to say now. But I’ve had plenty time to reflect. I didn’t have a cracking night’s sleep beforehand, though I felt fine prior to the race. I don’t think the weather was a factor either – I felt warm but not hot, and at no point did I feel dehydrated. Maybe I paid the price a little bit for a recent lack of hill training – I spent a lot of time preparing for a fairly flat ultra marathon earlier in the year, and have only recently given hillier running again its full due. But ultimately, its my lack of experience in these races. I wasn’t expecting the earth in terms of a performance, but I at least always felt I could at least excel myself in these types of races. Instead, it seemed I had finally found something that’s not quite my forte – and indeed, finding my body had reached a limit that basically said ‘no’, and tried to hold me back again and again. And initially I found that to assess my performance as such. I realise I’m being overly harsh. I can more appropriately say it was a chastening experience, one which I hadn’t possibly foreseen but one which maybe I should. Brighouse has nothing you could class as a fell – a few hilly trails, but nothing more. A trip to Stoodley, or Ilkley Moor is a day trip to me. For some more localised runners, this is their bread and butter. I could just jack it in and argue I’ll never have a chance.
But that belies my own competitive spirit. I’ve not experienced a DNF yet. Or even a DNS. Even when I’ve struggled, I’ve found a way to finish. Even when I’ve got lost, or taken a wrong turn during a race, I’ve fought tooth and nail to make up the ground. And here, I took on one of Calderdale’s toughest races, and lived to tell you I was bloody awful, and still finished.
So I may well sack the Stoodley Pike 5K next month and instead redouble my efforts to get race ready for the Regent’s Park 10km later in July. I shouldn’t be lugging myself up a great big hill just for the experience when my chief focus is elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean I should ditch fell racing. Simply make sure I get out there, get some experience, build up my core strength, do my recce if I can, and take a look at the most appropriate challenges out there. I shouldn’t ever expect myself to win one of these things. All I want is to be competitive on the day. But I realise that everyone has an off day, everyone has a bad race in them, and mine just happened to be this one. There’s no time to sit around complaining, because my next race, The Drop Summer Sizzler, is right around the corner. Or at least it was, til it got cancelled due to low sales. But more on that another time.
A big thank you to the Todmorden Harriers and everyone who volunteered, marshalled and flagged out the course.
Its Thursday 27th April, 2017, 5:32pm. I’m on a train to Ilkley. My rest vest is absolutely crammed. The bladder pocket is being used for clothing storage. I’m balancing a hot cup of black tea beneath my feet, and I’m trying to fold my waterproof jacket down enough to fit in the vest. I’m slightly stressed. I’m on my way to a race. On a Thursday evening.
What fresh hell is this?!
Call it an initiation of sorts. Today is my first ever fell race. Arguably, my second in fact – (Wo)Man vs Barge is described as a trail race by definition, but it involves a bit of scrambling, some fast descents and its very rocky in parts. I digress. This by definition is a fell race. The Dick Hudson, organised by the Wharfedale Harriers, is an annual fell race named after the boozer located at the foot of Bingley Moor, the halfway point of the race. The race starts at the barrier at White Wells, near the foot of Ilkley Moor, and is a loose 7 mile climb up and over Ilkley Moor & Bingley Moor, and then back again. It started in 2009, I believe, a spiritual successor of sorts to a long held race walking event which used to run (or walk) from Bradford to Dick Hudson’s until 2008, when it fell foul of stringent road safety regulations (there’s an excellent piece on that race here).
Registration took place beside a campervan and a small square table outside with pens and safety pins. Where there wasn’t room at the table, runners were using nearby signs to fill out the required entry form.
I had turned up nice and early after my initially stressful journey. I got my race number pinned to my shorts, and left my race vest in the campervan, taking only my waterproof jacket, and the whistle I purchased earlier in the day just in case a kit check took place. Yep, I’d packed a small portion of my house (or so it felt), and in the end didn’t need most of it. Well, rules are rules, its for your own safety so its better to pay attention and not risk your place. Race vest deposited, I warmed up with a nice little jog up and around the moor. I got as far as the stone staircase I’d climbed twice prior to today, and I couldn’t see a clear path around it. Well, damn. I guess I’m going to have to do some scrambling.
The clouds were ominously gathering. The race director had warned of rain around 8pm, yet it threatened to arrive sooner. I jogged back down the hill and started doing my warm up. I was recognised by another runner, Matt, who remembered me from my posts about the Leeds Liverpool Canal Canter on the Facebook group Running The World. We had a quick chat pre race, before the runners – gathered from all the local clubs – Wharfedale, Horsforth Fellandale, Hyde Park Harriers, Otley AC, etc – began to walk up to just past the barrier, almost a rolling start. The race director gave brief final instructions, a quick countdown and we were away.
Within the first 200 metres, lead runners began to peel off to the right and up a grassy knoll. Around another corner, several runners took an almost hairpin turn and took another path away from the gravel trail. There were a few of us, myself included, who continued past White Wells, and onwards to the stone stairs. There was a cyclist amongst this pack – cyclists are indeed invited to partake in this event – carrying the bike over one shoulder, scaling the staircase with relative ease. Even then, I wasn’t yet at the top of the moo – there were a couple more ups and downs before reaching Ilkley Crags, and I had to step aside to let the cyclist through – he was breathing down my neck for a good couple of minutes – but finally, I got onto the top, and found my stride. I had to place my feet ever so carefully at a split second’s notice, bounding over rocks, mounds and muddy, occasionally watery moorland.
The halfway point – the gate by the Dick Hudson’s pub – beckoned. A good few of the leading runners had gone through on their way back by this point, and the descent down to the gate was completed. A man was taking race numbers down as they arrived. I’m sure he said to me ‘on your shirt next time please‘. I can’t understand why, if that really was what he said, wearing my race number on my shorts was a problem. Still, I wasn’t the only runner to pin my race number to my shorts, so I felt slightly reassured that one or two others might get a bollocking too. Anywho, it was a steep climb back up, before beginning the crossing back up Bingley Moor. Arguably, this was the sting in the tail – a much more gradual climb on the way back, and somewhat more energy sapping. I really wasn’t feeling competitive, an unusual feeling as even when just running for the craic, I have even a slight urge to max out my effort.
Arriving back at Ilkley Crags, the runners immediately ahead of me veered to the left. I continued back the way I came. I figured I was going to try and see if I could actually gain a few places. I got to the steps as fast as I could, and nervously scrambled down. Finally hitting reasonably flat ground, I floored it.
The last kilometre is extremely quick downhill – and I could actually see I had ground ahead of at least one or two who’d gone the other way, still navigating the descent back towards the finish. I put on a good sprint finish and crossed the line in a time of 57:12 – good enough for 43rd overall.
This is the first of four fell races I had lined up, with Hebden Bridge up next in June. I felt a bit battered after this race, owing to my freak rib injury which left me feeling like I’d taken a punch to the kidneys or something. It did have me wondering whether or not I really enjoyed the prospect of running up a really steep hill to come back down it again, although the Dick Hudson is much more than that. However, I woke up the next day feeling fine, and so any doubts I had have subsided. I genuinely enjoyed the race, which I set out to do really just for the experience, though it was something to see my competitive urges seemingly disappear during the race, only to reappear near the end. Ultimately, I’m realistic to know that I was never going to match my recent excellent results (5th, 3rd, 2nd, and a 1st at a parkrun) racing a different animal altogether, and as long as it doesn’t interfere too much with my training for my fast 10km attempt in London in July, I truly can’t see any reason not to come back for more at Hebden Bridge in around four weeks’ time, because this running up big hills lark is actually quite fun. If that’s your bag, that is.
Once again, a big shout for the Wharfedale Harriers for putting on a cracking little race that makes the most of Ilkley Moor’s beauty and indeed its tough, brutal ascendancy. Only £4 to enter as well – no medal, no t-shirt, no goody bag – just pure running and well worth it. Thank you to all who volunteered to marshal/assist on the day. And well done all who took part. It was good to see everyone got back in one piece. , and indeed for those looking for a new challenge, this is a race you may wish to consider, if you can make it on a work/school night.
Whether its a sign of ever advancing years, booking my place only fourteen weeks before race day, or simply looking forward to it, the date of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal Canter seemed to arrive suddenly. It really didn’t matter how prepared I was, how well I’d slept, or how calm I felt. Waking up on this day – I knew exactly what day itself, and what I was about to get myself into. And yet, on this, my twentieth race (yes, I keep count), I felt a near effortless calm. I knew I had to stretch my feet, get a shower, pack the remainder of my hydration pack, eat my porridge, get dressed, teeth brushed, and ready to exit the house. I was effectively preparing for a commute. Something I do every day as part of my job.
And just like Monday to Friday, anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Upon setting off I learned my train was 13 minutes late due to ‘waiting for a train crew member’. I was almost alone on the edge of the town centre, ranting and raving about this ‘fucking typical’ development. By 7:15am, it had grown to 18 minutes late. Whoever this member of the crew was hopefully had some explaining to do, because its bad enough when its you, as a work commuter, having to explain Northern Rail’s inability to run their service punctually. And they were supposed to be striking the Monday after! Thank goodness for the MCard, a monthly pass that allows travel within certain rail zones and all countywide buses. I got an alternative train to Mirfield and from there, got a service into Leeds for 8:05am. Still leaving enough time to go break my own strike (caffeine), get some cash out, and go find my train to Headingley.
I’ve never been to Headingley before, and it felt odd as I left the station to drop down into Kirkstall. I checked the map afterwards – its roughly halfway between the cricket ground and Kirkstall itself. The race HQ was the Leeds Postal Sports Association club, on Beecroft Street. Upon finding it, it seemed all it served was to sort out what I was carrying and to go for a quick pitstop. The collection of race numbers was actually down on the towpath.I got down there, got my number and quickly pinned it to my vest. I was ready to warm up.
I had a quick jog westward along the canal, as far as the next bridge, and back again. I gathered along with the numerous runners, all running different distances, for the race briefing. The start of the race was a little confusing. 5K and ultra runners were going east towards Leeds, the rest from the other side of the nearby canal bridge on the 10K, half and full marathon routes. There was a bit of a delay while the race starter made their way to the top of Kirkstall Bridge. The westward runners seemed slightly organised, but the 5K and the ultra runners weren’t really in any sort of pack. I was stood there chatting with the other ultra runners, when after a few minutes there was a countdown and a horn to set runners off. I thought this was just for the runners heading west, but I turned around to see my fellow ultra competitors setting off. I quickly got my act together and was away.
I was quickly into second place, the lead runner around 15 seconds ahead. It was tempting to try and chase him down, but this was going to be a long day. Better to just focus on my own race. I found myself clocking 7:35 mile pace early on. This was a lot quicker than I had plotted in training. I felt I needed to slow down, but it was difficult. I didn’t even feel I was pushing that hard. It seemed effortless. Clearly I was on race pace, as race day preparation will seem to do for you, and I resolved just to stick to the plan of walk breaks every hour, nutrition every half hour.
I declined water at the first aid station, three miles into the run at its furthest point east, near Granary Wharf in Leeds. I turned back and kept on with my current pace. It had settled more at 7:45-7:50, which still seemed quick, but I was comfortable. Four miles was the first swig of High5 Zero drink. After just over six miles I was back past the start/finish area in Kirkstall, and heading onwards towards perhaps the most scenic part of the course, between Bramley and Esholt. I reached the hour mark somewhere just after Bramley, if memory serves me right. I had a SiS energy bar and some more energy drink. I walked for two and a half minutes, and my eighth mile went for 8:38. I did up my pace prior to walking, but even so, that’s a quick mile for spending a fifth, maybe slightly less, at a much slower pace. A marathon runner overtook me at this point, but I was past them again having resumed my rhythm. I was now running along the path where I’d run with Ben Smith and the Horsforth Harriers during his 401 Challenge. Part of the race’s appeal lies here for me – the countryside surrounding the canal, and the neighbouring River Aire, is really at its most stunning – green fields, waterfalls, wide open space – it is quite something to behold.
I reached 13.1 miles in around 1:35, and by the time I reached my second walk, I’d reached around 15 miles. I didn’t feel to be far off sub-4 hour pace for the distance, which would really be something. The walk breaks would likely put paid to that, but the time really wasn’t any concern to me. I just wanted to make sure I got to the end. By now I was tucking into oranges, and narrowly avoiding a rather angry, hissing goose as the race moved towards Saltaire. The lead runner was on his way back into the second half of the run. By the time I reached the aid station in Saltaire, I estimated I was about five minutes behind. I sensed he might be tiring, so this gave me a bit of impetus to put a bit more effort in. I wasn’t expecting to catch him, but I could certainly consolidate my position.
In the end, I wasn’t running any faster – just running confidently and consistently well each mile. Each of my miles between 16 and 23 went for sub-8, and I really felt like things were going to plan. The malt loaf at 2:30:00 kept me going, I was cooling off with water at aid stations, and though I hadn’t seemed to gain any real ground, I felt I was putting in some distance on those behind me.
I should mention, at this point, that it was great to receive a lot of compliments from runners coming the opposite way, and likewise, it was great to give some encouragement back. I even got a high five before halfway from one of the marathon runners, who was going at a fair oldprice pace. I was particularly heartened to see a ‘joggler’ out on course – that being to run while juggling. Of course. All while wearing a tiger mask. Civility is brilliant!
The three hour mark brought a slightly extended walk break of three minutes. I’ll be honest, that shift I put in did take some out of my quads. I took on a couple of caffeine gels, and then around twenty minutes later, took on an electrolyte gel. I felt tired below the waist, but I felt slightly energised and crucially, alert and focused. It was on towards Kirkstall again, to bring up the 26.2. ‘Congratulations‘, I thought to myself. ‘You’re now an ultra runner‘. One lady near the start/finish line was clapping my effort.I joked to her ‘the real race starts now!‘. And in one way, I suppose it did. Because the six miles that remained were going to determine whether I had the stamina to try and catch the leader. It would turn out I didn’t – I had to stop and walk once or twice to take on a bit of water, but I would get back into my running. I was a little slower on the climbs, and now clocking 8:25 mile pace. One foot in front of the other, that’s what was needed. At this point though, Leeds felt so far away. Its easy to just want something to appear, like you’re desperate to see the end. I had to stay positive.
Coming into Leeds, the leader passed me again. He was still looking good. By the time I’d reached the turning point, grabbing a segment of chocolate orange and a few sweets, I estimated I was about three to four minutes behind. A slight gain, but I really didn’t feel I had it in me to chase him down. And so it would prove. I was starting to walk on the climbs, trying to conserve energy to reach the end. I did see the third place runner, and by now I was heading back through Armley. That must have meant I was a considerable distance ahead, but I refused to rest on my laurels and by no means did I decide it was job done. Mile 31 went for 9:16 – my slowest of the entire race. But that was largely due to saving myself on the hills. I still had running in my legs on the flat.
I was a mix of sheer awe at the fact I was still running, and tired impatience at not being able to see the gazebo to signify the finish line as I turned each corner. Mile 32 came up at 8:46 – a sub-9 mile. Absolutely super at this stage. Finally, about a quarter of a mile later, I turned the corner and saw the finish line in the distance. I pumped my fist in the air and suddenly I felt a renewed wave of energy in my lower limbs. I powered towards the line and finished strongly. I absolutely knew it, and it would be confirmed.
Second place, second male, at the Leeds-Liverpool Canal Canter ultra! My official time: 4:21:45.
I can’t say I was surprised, purely because I knew what position I was in the whole time. But without question, I had achieved the best result of my running career, eclipsing the third place finishes at Blackpool Beach 10K Run in 2014, and the Sir Titus Trot half marathon just six weeks prior. If I wasn’t feeling absolutely physically destroyed, I’d have said I couldn’t quite believe how well my 2017 was turning out results wise.
I stuck around for a bit afterwards and got talking to the winner of the ultra. We shook hands and it was great to talk. He was also doing his first ultra and he thought I was going to catch him. I honestly told him when I saw him on the way back from Leeds I just had nothing left to chase. The feeling of mutual respect was great and we could both agree we’d taken part in a great race. I got talking to a few other competitors too, all while looking longingly at the amazing homemade cakes, all of which I felt too queasy from all the sweet stuff I’d eaten during the race to actually muster. I felt like I had pins and needles all over for a short time, and I was ever so careful trying to stretch my muscles. Nothing could take away from what a brilliant day I’d had though.
A lot of complimentary congratulations came my way on social media – it seems to go that way every time I excel myself. Its just amazing to be part of a community online that gives that kind of support and to be able to celebrate others’ achievements as well. My own Facebook wall was going pretty crazy too, and even into Monday I was still getting congrats from fellow runners, family, friends and work colleagues.
Where does this leave me now? Well, I absolutely want to run another ultra marathon, but it won’t be immediately and perhaps not even this year. My spring/summer seems to be lined up with a mix of potential trail and fell races, as well as The Drop (the race with no navigational aids or GPS allowed whatsoever), and potentially a 10K race in London. I do have desires to run a half marathon somewhere though and I readily have my eye on another Its Grim Up North Running event – the Kirkstall Trail Running Festival in November, where I intend to run the marathon. Quite simply, I want to race a little more this year and I’ve now got plenty options locally to look ahead to.
For now though, I’m taking a well-earned break for at least a couple of weeks and I’m going to try and let my body recover. I have a sneaky feeling of undiagnosed tendinitis below my left ankle which flared up five weeks before this race. Its not been severe at all, but to keep on track this year I’m going to want to make sure I absolutely time my comeback carefully and do the necessary work to nurse it back to full fitness. I want to run without thinking I’m going to need paracetamol to get through, or ibuprofen or heat rub to take the shine off afterwards.
All in all though, the biggest takeaway about my body from this race is just how well prepared I seemed to get myself. To actually still have the energy to run 32 miles shows I struck a good nutritional balance, paced myself well, learned when to hold back and when to push. My body absolutely came through for me on the day, and that gives me all the confidence I need to say that, if I’m healthy, why not take on another ultra? Why not try and run further? Why not see if you can go one better?
Once again, a big thanks to Cath and Di at Its Grim Up North Running for putting on a great event, set on a canal steeped in rich countryside and industrial heritage. A huge thank you to all the volunteers and a big well done to everyone who took part across all five distances. The race itself is an ideal first ultra for anyone looking to make the step up, and if you’re interested in this race, you don’t have to wait too long – a summer edition is also open for entry, apparently – though I can’t find the link right now. Did I mention free homemade cake?
It had been one week since the fall. The week before, I fell on my knee on a boozy night out with my family. I don’t remember the taxi ride home or entering my house. All I know is that I woke up on my sofa the morning after, still in my clothes, with a sore knee, a bruised foot, bruised rib and grazed elbow. That night, I ran 15 miles. I continued my running on Tuesday and Thursday and it seemed I was relying a little on paracetamol to not encounter any problems. Waking up on Saturday, race day, and feeling there had been no improvement in the situation, I wondered if I was denying myself the possible predicament I was either in, or getting myself into. It felt a bit like I was hurrying myself into a bit of a quandary.
I’d already decided I was going to take part in this race, the Sir Titus Trot (half marathon), come hell or high water, and I’d gone from a position of wondering if I could push for my PB on a relatively flat course to just seeing how it goes and to enjoy the experience. It’d been a long couple of years since I pretty much smashed my sub-1:25 target, and my focus had been less on speed and more on pacing, and setting tougher challenges for myself. The only speedwork I’ve done lately is hill sprints, so in hindsight, I felt I was asking too much of myself to tear things up on this occasion. Not withstanding the fact I was feeling pretty rough the morning of the race, prior to bathing, eating breakfast and getting my clobber together.
As for the race itself…I’d never been to Saltaire before. I once went to its larger, neighbouring town Shipley many moons ago, but the village itself? Not until now. It was created in 1851 by Sir Titus Salt, an industrialist who wanted to concentrate his textile manufacture in one place, using land purchased three miles west of Shipley, next to the River Aire and the Leeds Liverpool Canal. The village’s name is a play on Sir Titus’ name and that of the river. (Cheers Wikipedia).
Stepping off the bus, I headed down to Victoria Hall to get registered for the race. Registration was in a small, square room, queued left to right for the 5K, 10K, half and full marathons respectively. After pinning my race number to my shorts, and changing my shirt – I dropped toothpaste on my original choice – I decided to nip out to a nearby sandwich shop to end my caffeine abstinence. I’d only spent five days off the stuff though, so the black tea I had today was nowhere near the wide-eyed effect it had back in Llanberis a few months earlier. Nonetheless, I went back to the Victoria Hall to get a gel out of my bag, put it into my jacket, drop my cash back in there and then to head down to the race start/finish area, where I warmed up, carried out a brief out and back one way and met Shaun, another runner I’d briefly conversed with about the race online.
I realised at the start line that everyone had brought their bags down to the shelter under the bridge by the start/finish line. Realising I’d left my bag back in the hall roughly five minutes before the start wasn’t ideal, but I did get a marshal’s attention and he kindly called to one of the organisers to bring it down on their way to the canal. Minor panic over.
The race briefing took place around the shelter as runners and marshals huddled around the canal as the odd non-entrant runner, dog walker, etc. tried to squeeze past the throng, and though the race starter gave the instructions, they seemed largely inaudible by the end as the group, aided by the echo of the underpass, gave the effect of a group of schoolchildren grinning to the point where the briefing might as well have been nonsense. Well, what we did know is that there would be 3.5 miles towards Leeds, back to the start and onwards in the direction of Skipton for another 3 miles or so, and then back again. That was for the half marathoners. The 5K and 10K entrants would have turned around and finished before that point, and the marathoners were headed roughly 10 miles beyond the start/finish towards Skipton before turning back. And marshals/water stations were only at the turnaround points, such was the nature of the course – a towpath on which it would be impossible (even for myself) to get lost on.
The countdown commenced, and we were on our way, amidst the bleeps and bloops of watches starting. This quickly turned to the squelching of mud and the splash of feet entering puddles. As everyone started at the same time, in the same direction, it was hard to tell who exactly was running which distance. One or two had set off at a rapid pace, so they surely must have been doing one of the shorter distances. Meanwhile, I noticed my watch was giving me a reading of 6:20 mile pace. At this point, it seemed effortless, but more to the point, my right knee, the source of so much consternation, wasn’t grumbling, tweaking or complaining at all. It actually felt OK. So after a first mile of 6:18, even in completely the wrong shoes for the terrain, I decided I’d keep it up.
The race had begun to string out by the second turnaround point (the first being 1.5 miles in for the 5K), and I’d kept to roughly 6:15-6:30 mile pace. I’d caught up, almost, with a male runner in a navy vest (whom I now know was a Baildon Runner). He was running with a long, purposeful stride, as opposed to my quicker, but shorter cadence. At the turnaround, he seemed to hesitate at the water station. This is where I actually tried tactics. He was only a few seconds ahead, and knowing I was well hydrated, I didn’t give it a glance and began to push on. I got onto the man’s shoulder as other runners continued to come past, a mix of 10K, half and marathon entrants. This continued for the best part of a mile and finally I put in a surge to go past him, and now it was my turn to put in a bit if work. Just as I had in Liversedge two years ago, I wanted to time my gel consumption for just after the 5th mile. I had felt it gave me a slight boost in that PB effort to keep up my pace levels right to the end. Whether it would work here, on an overall flatter course, would remain to be seen. So I ceded the place back, took the gel, but remained in contact.
The halfway point in the race seemed to take forever to arrive. We passed 6.5 miles, according to the watch, and the gazebo still wasn’t in sight. It was much closer to 7 miles by the time we passed it. At this point, I seem to remember going by the Baildon man again, as I was starting to gain on another man, this one wearing a Bingley Harriers shirt. I was tailing this runner for a while, then as we went under another bridge, I heard footsteps rapidly gaining. The Baildon Runner had put in a bit of a surge to catch up and the three of us were now switching places. This was exciting stuff, but I’d no idea whether I was jockeying for the lead, or if this was for one of the other ‘podium’ places. We’d soon be broken up. The Bingley runner had to stop momentarily to re-tie a shoelace. Then the race’s two steep hills, the Three Rise Locks, and a bit further on, the more demanding Five Rise Locks. The latter in particular is absolutely magnificent to look at, an amazing work of human industry, but the hill, though short, seemed very steep. My recent hill sprint training steadied me well, but I lost a bit of pace, and the navy runner was starting to get away. I recorded a 7:03 mile for that lap – the only time I recorded a single mile over 7 minutes the whole race.
As I started to approach the final turnaround, near Crossflatts, a man in a Horsforth Harriers vest ran past in the opposite direction. Clearly he was the leader, so there was no pressure there. I could live with that. A couple of minutes later, the Baildon Runner I had duelled with earlier also came past, his stride pattern clearly paying dividends by now. I was next up. I now knew I was third. A position I’m familiar with on a local level, but could I keep hold of it? I took a jelly baby and a cup of water, and tried my best to take sips of it. The Bingley runner was around 20-30 seconds behind. Knowing this, I tried to lift my pace, the demands of the effort now starting to ask questions of me. My knee, incredibly, was still feeling good. Clearly the combination of the paracetamol on the bus ride and the black tea had done wonders there, along with a proper warm up of course.
The last three miles were a heavy mix of pleasure, grit and ‘when will it end?’ The runners still coming the other way were giving plenty of encouragement and I was more than happy to return it. I nearly stumbled at the bottom of Five Rise Locks but kept my footing and used the brief descents to inject a bit of pace. I recorded 6:41 and 6:33 for mile 11 and 12, but I was definitely finding it harder to keep up to my earlier levels. Add to that being told I still had a couple of miles to go at around 11.75 miles in, I was getting desperate to see the finish. I refused to look back, apart from the solitary bridge crossing, which was more a cursory glance. I didn’t spot the blue of the Bingley Harrier, so I just knuckled down, really hoping to see the finish soon in the misty conditions.
Mile 13 came up at 6:52, according to my watch. I finally switched from pace/distance to time/distance, and remember seeing 1:25:something. Nowhere near my PB, but then I had lowered my expectations, and all I had to do now was keep going. The Baildon Runner only vaguely visible in the distance, a very much distant and impossible target. But then I saw the finish. I lifted the knees one more time, and the noise grew louder as the finish neared. Finally I was home. I turned around, and sure enough, I was third. To my complete surprise, I even got a trophy for 3rd male! And a fetching medal of Sir Titus himself too. There was cake at the finish as well, which I was tucking into as the Bingley Harrier arrived home. We got talking to one another at the end, along with the Baildon runner, looking back on what had been a quite incredible race experience.
I was hugely proud of my result – I had hoped to go a little faster, but I can say a lesser focus on speedwork recently has perhaps dulled my edge a little, plus the course didn’t have quite as many steep drops as the Liversedge Half Marathon, where I set my PB of 1:22:41.
I hung around a bit at the finish, and checked out my goodie bag, which contained a bottle of beer and a Terry’s Chocolate Orange! I elected not to risk my knee further with a recovery run into Bradford, even though I still wasn’t feeling any issues with it at the time. I deemed it better to go and change my socks, and get myself on the two bus journeys towards home. I forgot a pair of jeans, so I went home, as one does, still with my race number attached to my shorts, and lurid green compression socks!
This was my first time running the Sir Titus Trot, which was only established by It’s Grim Up North Running last year, and I must say its a cracking little race. The rather dank weather made the race that little more exciting in the end, and being able to run near the front end of the race, especially the tactical mini battles during the middle of the race. The extra distance was only a minor issue, and was explained by the decision to move the start under a bridge to shelter from the rain, meaning the start/finish line was moved. The route itself is beautiful. Granted, this particular day wasn’t the best one for it, but its a well maintained canal and the Five Rise Locks are a stunning feature of the course. There’s not a great barrier to entry, apart from the small field size – the course is mostly flat, bar a couple of sizable climbs which you have to come down again (if doing the marathon or the half). And the weather on the day made it even more exciting! Do go check out It’s Grim Up North Running online, they have many great races across Yorkshire and parts of north England, and all competitively priced, and not oversubscribed either – only 140 runners took part in this race overall. A great addition to the local running scene, and superbly organised too..
And now as I recover from the combination of those injuries, and a chest infection to boot, I can proudly look back upon my best race result for nearly three years! A cracking way to begin the year.
I’d like to finish that my run this past weekend was dedicated to Sue Brabbins. Sue was a runner and a popular member of the Facebook group ‘Running the World’, and raised thousands for charity through running. Sue was diagnosed with a terminal Glioblastoma Multiforme Grade 4 brain tumour. She had previously defeated two separate tumours and had continued to run and fundraise prior to her diagnosis with the fatal tumour in 2015. Her defiant positivity in the face of her illnesses endeared her more to the group, which currently encompasses 19,000 members. Sue died in 2016, but she left a lasting impression on many people and this weekend was the group’s ‘Sue Brabbins Race Weekend’ in her memory. Her husband Paul is now trying to raise £2,000 for Brain Tumour Research to help fund future research into these illnesses.
If you’d like to leave a donation or read more about Paul’s cause, please visit the JustGiving page here.
It was a privilege to be part of such an occasion among the running community, and I’m proud I delivered a cracking result. Thank you to Paul, and Tony & Anne Bennett for putting all this together and making this a weekend where we, as individuals and as a community, could all celebrate Sue’s life and legacy in our own way.
The Great Yorkshire Pieathlon is now a firm favourite in the end-of-year race calendar. Having been forced to miss the event in 2013 and 2014 through a combination of lack of money, and injury, 2015 was the year where I finally put my finger in the pie, dipped my toe in the mud and saw for myself the glory beholden. My mate Jordan and I ran relatively undertrained, but well enough to finish reasonably well and having consumed about half our bodyweight in pie. The hordes who run in fancy dress no doubt contribute to the fun, Christmassy aspect of this race, not least of all for the prospect of having to tackle the race’s infamous Bog of Doom, an unavoidable stretch of mud that has ruined many a suit and claimed many a shoe.
I was lucky enough to win my entry to the race at the start of this year, when I was randomly selected just for liking a post on Facebook, starting off a year where I’ve been lucky enough to win a three boxes of TREK bars, and most recently, some calf sleeves via Running Heroes. If that translated to Irish Lottery wins, I’d be at least a grand up by now! But I digress. This turned out to be a neatly placed end of year event and a good way to ease back into schedule after the Snowdonia Marathon.
Jordan didn’t sign up this year, and I didn’t feel I could splash out on a decent fancy dress costume – we had the idea that Jordan and I could recreate a hungry man chasing after the other, dressed as a pie. Alas, on my own, I opted to just enjoy the race while running it as hard as I could. Besides, some of the outfits on display were amazing. Like this guy, carrying a full size artificial Christmas tree with a frame on his shoulders. Magnificent.
Cue the start, a very windy day indeed at Salendine Nook High School, which nearly took down the inflatable arch, but with a bit of willpower from Wane, the organiser from Team OA, it stood upright and soon enough, we were off, down the school’s football pitches and through the gate to Longwood Edge Road. I soon made my way up to third, and for a while I tracked the two lads in front along to the end of the road, and down the steep Shaw Lane. All was going to plan at first, and as we arrived at the first pie station, I quickly nipped in, like someone who’s done this before, and briefly jumped into second, although I was overtaken again. Then, I bit into the porkpie. Ugh, it was dry. And by dry, I mean claggy. It wouldn’t go down at all, and as we ventured up ‘One Pie Hill’, which crosses a golf course, I had to stop just to swallow a bit and take another bite.
Over the stile I went, the front two still visible. I kept an eye on my footing but suddenly, it went from underneath me and ‘thud’. I landed fairly flat, arms outstretched to break my fall. As far as falls go, it was a pretty good one. I got up and got on with it. At this point I struggled for a bit, and found myself wandering slightly off the track a little – not by much, but enough that allowed a few others to catch up, and I dropped from third to sixth. Still, I was doing my level best to enjoy it, as the race took another sharp descent, this time down Hollin Hall Lane, as the race neared the infamous ‘Bog of Doom’. A left turn, over a stile and onwards. Another runner in front took a tumble, and there wasn’t too much distance up to the runners ahead. There was the bog. The photographers, marshals and a few supporters were gathered ‘Go on Peter, straight through it!’ yelled one lady who I might have recognised. I don’t know why I moved slightly to the right – perhaps I thought it looked slightly less boggy. Oh well, splodge SPLODGE. Tackled like a demon. With a thumbs up to those gathered, I went past the chef, who’d made his way to the bog for the ensuing hilarity, and started to head for the road section.
Here is my one and only race photo. I don’t like it, I don’t look to be enjoying myself and why my arm is up in the air like that, I don’t know! I was still having a good time, I assure you.
Over a stile, over the cattle grid, past another pie station. I picked up, and dropped, another porkpie. Not only that, I actually knocked over a full tray of porkpies as I grasped to catch the falling pastry. Apologetic, I tried to chase down the three men ahead. I got past one of them, a dreadlocked Santa Claus, but it would soon be the devilishly tough ascent up Dodlee Lane. I wasn’t too far behind, but the cobbled nature of the hill is punishing, and I had to walk a little. Eventually, still trying to gnash the now gritty pie, I plundered along to Edge Terrace, another steep, angled climb, partly walked, mostly run, I finally reached the top and clambered through the gate. My calf muscles were aching. I opted not to go for the sprint finish, reigning in my competitive instincts and indeed, preserving my energy, and took it steadily all the way to the finish.
Two porkpies, both of which I couldn’t finish, one fall, one bloodied knee, and fifth place overall, in 32:34. An improvement on last year, but largely insignificant really in an event such as this.
I stopped around at the finish, talking to some of the other runners about the race, the hills, the Bog, and those claggy pies, before heading off to clean my shoes. Inside, it felt a bit sparse. Pie-Eck, the wonderful company who turned up last year, weren’t about with their Yorkshire-themed pies, but there were complimentary mince pies for the runners at the end – how I wish I’d grabbed one of those out on course! And I was able to clean up my knee, although in reality it was a minor graze and nothing to worry about. And unfortunately, it appeared the school were fixing the shower area up, so I wasn’t able to clean my legs, or my arms for that matter. I couldn’t complain too much though. I was very grateful to have won my entry to this race, and so I was happy just to have enjoyed the race, the people in fancy dress, and everything that came with it. I’ve never fallen over in a race before, but I really don’t mind – it was nothing serious and it was all part of the fun.
The organisers have confirmed a new catering company are in place for 2017, which should hopefully result in the return of those love, rich, gravy-laden pies. But nonetheless, even though it was quite as indulgent as the year before, this was still a fabulous event, one ideally better suited if you’re running with friends or family members, and ideally, the dafter, the better. And even if you do take it semi-seriously, as I did this time, you can expect a thorough examination of your hill strength, and indeed your penchant for pie. And the race finisher t-shirt this year was just sums up what we all really think about running!
A big thanks to the race organisers for my prize entry, and to the organisers, photographers and volunteers for all their help on the day.
Entry for the 2017 Pieathlon is now open. Simply head hereif you fancy a slice.
It was early in 2014, still relatively fresh to running, when discovering that Channel 4OD (now All4) were showing highlights of triathlon and endurance events around the UK, and the world, that I discovered the Snowdonia Marathon. I remember downloading it and being taken in by the incredible climbs in elevation involved, the sheer fortitude of the runners taking part to take on such a race, and, most crucially, the scenery. Such I was taken in that I watched the same highlights several times in the calendar year, along with those of the Snowdon International Race. In 2015, when I was beginning the process of preparing for my first marathon, I watched the highlights of the 2015 race – in which Tracy McCartney came in to take the ladies’ title while John Gilbert, complete in torrentially soaked woolly hat, stormed to a course record to take the men’s title.
At what point I decided that I really wanted to do this race, I can’t remember – but I knew that I was starting to lose a little interest in chasing personal records, which I was braking for fun, it seemed, until I opted to step up to the marathon. I later got my London Marathon entry for 2016 on Good For Age, but by the end of September, recuperating from sesamoiditis, that after seeing the Snowdon Race highlights again, that I’d been bitten and declared my intention to a few people to enter the Snowdonia Marathon in 2016. Cue a deliberate entry process at twenty past midnight on New Year’s Day, and I was in. My name, on the entry list, for the 2016 Snowdonia Marathon – or Marathon Eryri, to give it’s Welsh name.
London might have been the biggie as a World Marathon Major, but heart in heart, my true expectation lay with the challenge of Snowdonia, famed for three key climbs, and a very steep descent into Llanberis near the finish, 3,166 meters of elevation, its fabulous local support, spectacular mountainous scenery, and a propensity to absolutely chuck it down. What wasn’t to love?
So after a summer preparing by walking in the Dales and on the Pennine Way, getting lost during the (Wo)Man vs Barge race, frequently running at 4am on Thursdays, getting covered waist down in manure in Hebden Bridge, climbing through Saddleworth and up Dovestones, and later experiencing sheer exhaustion, running up and down Holme Moss twice in a single run, and nearly passing out on what should have been a routine flat canal long run, I was finally here. Here in the heart of North Wales. Here in Snowdonia.
The family racecation, discussed in my previous post, was built around this race, and it was thanks to Joni, and her contacts in the area, that she not only arranged a lift on race day with a member of her running club, Richard, but also lent me use of a foam roller (so I didn’t have to pack mine) and sourced car booster seats so she could transport my wife Laura, and my twin five-year-old kids (for whom the boosters were for!) to Waunfawr to watch me at roughly mile 21 of the race. The nerves were present the day before, but following race registration, I was raring to go.
After a quick dash to buy lunch for my family and a cup of black tea – my first caffeine for two weeks – I arrived to meet Richard and his club mate Leon, and off we went to Llanberis. The same drive I’d taken with Joni and Richard to race registration the night before in darkness, now revealing an increasing number of hills growing in stature, later becoming mountains. We arrived in the car park for Llanberis Lake Railway at 10:10am. While Leon went to grab a parking ticket, we were busy taking selfies before the inevitable punishment began.
At this point, I can safely say the caffeine was having the desired effect. I was wide awake. Actually wired, a feeling I don’t think I’ve experienced since childhood, a feeling I possibly didn’t think existed!
I had time for a few warm-up exercises too but we were soon making our way to the start line, and had little time to spare.
Once we arrived we had about four minutes left. I did what I could as I realised I hadn’t stretched my feet this morning, and with less than a minute retied my shoes to make them tighter. The hooter went, but we could barely hear it from where we were stood. And so it was off and away for the biggest challenge of my life, setting off at a pace leaving Richard and Leon behind.
The first couple of miles were gentle as we left Llanberis and went through Nant Peris. I was around 7:00 minute mile pace at this point. The rural nature of the race was quickly evident against the backdrop of the mountains in the distance, all shrouded in cloud and fog. There was a great spirit and camaraderie amongst the runners, and it was absolutely great to see. I had a minor hiccup when a mini Chia Charge bar shot out of the top of my race vest, but I managed to quickly pick this up and head back in the right direction without impeding anyone. Onto the first of the three major hill sections, by which any semblance of housing or farmland gave way to the magnificent rock and slate formations either side. The drizzle returned and as we ascended higher, the cloud got thicker and thicker, and was misting up my glasses.
The race soon had its first downhill section, which headed down towards the Pen-y-Pass, and here I decided I was going to throw caution to the wind, and to hell with the consequences. We could all only see forwards as the cloud smothered everything inbetween. It made for exciting racing, and the sixth mile went for 5:38! We turned the corner, and right now I was in no mood to hang around. As I headed down onto the first of the two trail sections, I felt as though I couldn’t actually stop, my legs and the gravity just carrying me down and simply relying on foot placement and a sense of spatial awareness to those around me. Another sub-6 minute mile followed. I wasn’t paying too much attention to my pacing, more to the actual time elapsed during the race to take on board the pre-prepared carb-loaded drink I’d packed, and of course, the lovely view. As we continued to make our way back onto the main road, the cloud had now begun to lift, revealing the beauty of the land and lakes beneath, and the majesty of the mountains beneath which they sit. Inside, I knew that pace had butchered my race plan, but I decided to go with the flow. I wanted to enjoy this race, and I can safely say that Pen-y-Pass, or what I could see of it, had possibly just become my favourite part of any race ever. Whether a wise move or not, it felt so pure to race across it. Reaching the top of that climb, running down the hill, taking the right and joining the trail path towards Nant Gwynant – incredible.
I was taking on a Chia Charge bar in segments at 20 minute intervals, a trend I would continue up to halfway, and around mile 10, I found myself in an odd position of being separated from runners in front or behind me. I actually felt the need to slow a little and allow others to catch up. I don’t mind running alone – I train 99% of the time alone – but in a race situation I felt it helpful for a while just to be part of a small group. So as I began to nibble on that Chia Charge bar, I got swallowed up by four others and started running as part of a group. This more or less continued as we approached the halfway point, Beddgelert, one of the more populated parts of the course and with a great crowd presence. I’d gone through in around 1:31:00, a shade off the sub-3 hour pace which led many of those tracking my race online to believe I actually on for a sub-3. Any hope of that, should I have chosen to believe that prospect, quickly evaporated as the climb out of Beddgelert took hold. Here the hills weren’t the steepest, but they were continual in nature, and energy sapping. Really sneaky indeed.
I’d finished my Chia Charge bar long since, and I felt a little boost from that and the isotonic that was being handed out by the excellent race marshals. It was onto Rhyd Ddu, which featured the beautiful Llyn Cwellyn to the left. I was told here would be the place to see Snowdon in all its glory. The cloud meant it wasn’t to be, though I did get a boost out of seeing a gap of blue sky starting to emerge above the lake.
It actually seemed there were more hills than the organisers had let on. Everyone seems to focus on those three major climbs, but there’s a few sneaky ones during this section after Beddgelert, which really soften you up for the bigger tests ahead. It was hard to keep up the momentum, and I could feel the pace slowing. I’d also run for a good mile or two out on my own and actually started to sing Iggy Pop tunes to myself to try and take my mind off any approaching discomfort. My pace also seemed to be dropping. But you know what? I was having a good time. The race felt a little like home, in the sense of the many narrow, rural roads I raced on, similar to back in Yorkshire, only somewhat upscaled due to the great many Llyns and mountains in the area. It felt like a great privilege just to be in that area at that moment.
I knew that my impending implosion was possibly arriving, and after mile 20, I turned to looking ahead to mile 21, because for only the third time since I started running, my family were going to be there to watch me, so this became my inspiration to drive on. I was getting encouragement from another runner and I sensed this was turning from something enjoyable to something attritional. But I was still on my feet. I was going to finish the damn race.
I don’t remember the name of the pub in question, all I knew is that when I began to approach, I could hear two very loud, very young voices above everyone else’s. And those voices unmistakably belonged to my kids, both vociferously shouting ‘come on Daddy! ‘Go on Daddy!‘. I spotted them on my right. I really wanted to cross the road to greet them, but oncoming traffic meant it wasn’t really safe or wise to do so. I made sure I smiled and waved at my family and Joni as I ran past. I felt as though that gave me a bit of impetus to at least up my stride, and before long I was advancing towards the sharp right, notable by the giant road sign pointing to the turning point, at which the sharp end of the race would bear its teeth.
The initial hill felt like a struggle, and I just about made it up that, but the infamous climb out of Waunfawr, named Bwlch-y-Groes, was now present, and at this point in the race, it seemed unholy. I took one look at it, and both my mind and body abruptly said ‘no!‘. Somewhat reassuringly, a man at the start of the climb informed us it was ‘only’ two miles to the top. Cheers for that, I thought to myself, somewhat sarcastically, before the same man advised of two drinks stations, one halfway up, the other near the top. I’m sure he meant well. That didn’t make it any easier. Almost immediately, I reverted to the run-walk strategy I used to get up Holme Moss five weeks before. A minute run, a minute walk. Except this became a minute walk, thirty seconds running. Sometimes only 25 seconds running. I passed the first drink station, took on some more isotonic, and tried to go again. Nothing. More walking. Just keep moving forwards, I told myself.
Somewhere up on the pass, the wheels were starting to come off. As I got back into a run motion, as the incline levelled out a bit, I feel a strain in my groin, on the right, more specifically, towards…my crotch. Ok, my inside leg. Wow, this was a new one. All I could do was stop and stretch. Another runner suggested I stride or change my gait. That helped briefly, but then the tightening came from the other side. I stopped, and I think I had a white flash. I’d taken on Chia Charge, Soreen, jelly babies, isotonic, and clementines up to mile 22, but my plan to complete without a gel was to be compromised. I had to take on a little more. So I reached for a gel, received out on the course, took it, and began walking again. It didn’t taste horrible (the first one never does), and it seemed to recharge my batteries just enough.
Not once, not even in that moment, did I even consider quitting. The top of the pass was close, and the hardest part was nearly through. I just needed to get to the final downhill.
Finally I reached the top. I checked my watch, realising there were less than two miles to go. One marshal said to the runners to let your legs carry you down, like some sort of deliverance, I guess. The run down was amazing – the initial momentum of gravity suddenly injected a bit more life in the lower limbs, and looking out, I could see the grand Llyn Padarn, so far below but so near, so vast and beautiful. The path got steeper, but I was almost there. It felt like a victory mile.
Finally, I got onto the road, I turned one corner, and then another. A cramp shot up my right calf. The finish was in sight. I gingerly adjusted. A cramp in my left calf. Again I adjusted. And I ran towards the finish. I was finishing the race on my own two feet. I looked out to find my wife and kids. Joni was running by with her phone, but no sign of my family. I continued running and with arms out wide, crossed the finish line. Without question, my most glorious finish to a marathon yet, and my yells of ‘Get in!‘ didn’t go unnoticed by the finish line announcer!
Having received my slate coaster, water bottle and foil blanket, my kids emerged round the corner from the finish. I gave them a massive cuddle over the barrier, which nearly brought a tear to my eye, I must confess, and a hug for my wife too.
Immediately, I was being shepherded towards the visitor centre, with kids in tow. In we went, and while Laura took the kids into the toilets, Joni asked what I wanted. I asked for a black tea. After going through the sandwiches on offer, I settled on ham. I think my mind was a bit frazzled to consider this gesture, as I certainly hadn’t offered to pay out of my own pocket, but I was still good enough immediately after sitting, taking ‘the medal/coaster selfie’, and trying to contact my relatives back home. I spent a lot of time nibbling the sandwich, not putting any salad in at first, then trying with the second and realising onion tasted disgusting. I was starting to shiver, and mentioned I needed salt, which led to one of my kids actually picking up the salt shaker and handing it to me. Such a gesture. I sprinkled a bit on, and it helped a little, but my primary need was the High5 Zero electrolyte tablets, and a change of clothes. I went to get changed, filled up a water bottle and dispensed two tablets in there, and finally said to my family and Joni I felt ready to go, taking the journey back to Llandudno via the Pen-y-Pass, leaving Snowdonia behind, surveying the area I’d been running across just a few hours ago – now restored to its’ natural quiet.
That last paragraph puts into context the race I had. Yes, I went too hard early on, and I paid for it, and I ended up racing with a sound knowledge that I was going to end up walking, and indeed, suffering at some point. I knew I had been in a war of attrition. The feelings I experienced at Bwlch-y-Groes, I have never experienced in a race before. To see that flash as I pulled up for a second time was briefly, ever so briefly, a scary moment. Did I ever think I wasn’t going to finish? Not at all. I knew I had to, and though I compromised on my nutritional plan by consuming a gel, it was necessary to get to the end, and I would say overall, nutritionally, I got the balance about 85% right, which is as good as its got yet. But I have no regrets. I raced for the thrill of running, in the self styled land of adventure.
As an overall experience, this race absolutely puts every other race I’ve entered in the shade. Sure there are other races in the country, many of which I’ve yet to experience, that have equally beautiful scenery, a course just as, if not tougher, and crowds as vocal, or greater in number. Snowdonia just feels to have something more. They don’t just give out the status of ‘best UK marathon’ (a title won by Snowdonia in 2007 and 2011) without very good reason. Nor does it sell out within 13 hours without solid explanation. It might well be tough as a rusty nail sandwich, but that’s Snowdonia’s appeal. People want to run it. People want to race it. Its more than simply a fast time – its a unique challenge, set in an area of outstanding natural beauty. That’s precisely what drew me to it. To have actually completed it represents the proudest moment of my life as a runner to date. To put in all the training, the early starts, the long hours on the hills, for moments like this – I’m really trying, but I can’t put into words how much it means!
The race itself is exactly as I’ve seen it on TV and more. So well organised, support laid out across the entire course provided by marshals and volunteers; plenty of drink stations and absolutely fabulous local support. The people who live in this most spectacular area of the world come out in droves to support the runners. So many shout out your name, emblazened clearly on your vest, much more visibly then any Great Run event and it provides such a feelgood factor to have that much encouragement sent your way. And of course, the scenery, the terrain, the challenge itself. There aren’t many races in this country that can roll all of this into one, but Snowdonia absolutely does. It felt magical, wrapped in cloud and fog, running down Pen-y-Pass, to gaze at the clear blue lakes, to stare at the mountains and to see the slate the region once thrived on. The final run down into Llanberis, overlooking Llyn Padarn, is such a reward for the character-building toil of Bwlch-y-Groes. Its easy to see why runners want to return to this race despite its extreme difficulty and the often inclement weather, and why it sells out year on year. Every runner who wants to call themselves a marathoner has to try this race at least once.
The picture below perfectly encapsulates the emotional thrall. Quite simply, the Snowdonia Marathon is the single most beautiful and the toughest race I have ever done, and I used every ounce of determination and willpower to finish. It was everything I imagined and more. And I’ll never stop smiling when I look back on this day. To have completed this race in front of my family, and to have taken on the challenge and succeeded, makes me immeasurably proud. Thank you Snowdonia.
4. (Wo)Man vs Barge aka How to Lose Your Way and Make Friends
This week marked a juncture in my training diary due to my entry into the race ‘(Wo)Man vs Barge’, a five mile trail race from Marsden in West Yorkshire to Diggle in Lancashire. Racing at the same time (well, sailing) through the Standedge Tunnel from one end to the other was a barge, which is what we were all looking to outrun. How hard can that be, you’d ask, given the top speed of a barge is about 4mph and would have to travel with care through the narrow tunnel.
The Standedge (that’s ‘Stan-ige’, to you and I) Canal Tunnel was constructed between 1794 and 1811, originally to link Huddersfield with the town of Ashton-Under-Lyne. It measures 5,000 metres across, 196 metres above sea level and at its deepest, 194 metres underground. It is the longest, deepest, highest canal tunnel in Britain, and was once featured on a series called ‘Great Canal Journeys‘ which told the story of the tunnel, its human cost and a fabulous trip down the tunnel with Timothy West and Prunella Scales (it was on Channel 4 – I don’t think the episode is on demand though).
I had suffered a slight injury scare during the week – my foot felt bruised after doing, of all things, a speed run up and down hills, this after extolling the virtues of running slow! But oddly whatever I did vanished after some quick necessary foot and calf massage, and a run round the park two days later went absolutely fine, no problems at all. I even did the swim and gym session again. So I was well ready for the race.
My wife and kids had gone away on a surprise weekend away, which left me to my own devices and so, I got myself up and out the door early. Not even the failure of the bus driver to stop at the right stop as I arrived in Marsden was too much of a stick in the mud, and it gave me a glimpse of the very road, and surrounding moors, I’ll be running on and past later this year. Well, not much later at all, but you’ll gather that as you read on.
Arriving at Standedge Visitor Centre, the rain began to fall as I got chatting to the organisers, Wane and his wife Katie of Team OA, and a couple of runners who also turned up. I was early. Too early. Oh well. For my eagerness I was rewarded with the race number ‘001’. Sure enough, the weather brightened up a little, the entrants turned up and soon Standedge Visitor Centre was very busy. Nearby, the very boat we would be racing was anchored, preparing to set sail.
Runners eventually arrived, emerging via the canal towpath, or from the Reddisher Road end. A lady called Sarah, who I’ve briefly met while she marshalled another race I was in, arrived and recognised me – we’re also part of the same Running The World group on Facebook. She had offered to put my backpack in her car but had to park some distance away from the race venue. But she did point me back towards Wane, who duly enough was happy for me to load it in the back of the Team OA van, so long as I was picking it up in Diggle. Problem solved, warm up carried out, I took up position near the front of the start line. The countdown began. Seconds before the off, a Knowsley runner asked me if I knew the route! I actually said I didn’t (I had viewed the route online in actual fact), but said it was all arrowed and flagged. And we were off.
I should clarify before the next paragraph that I had looked at the route below, but felt clearer in the knowledge it was marked – I’m not too used to map reading outside of Google Maps or OpenStreet Map, so reading Explorer maps and so on is a learning curve right now. Before anyone judges my preparation!
I wasn’t putting that much effort in to begin with – I was second and trying to dice it along the road in my Mudclaws, which initially felt like football boots on the concrete. The pace wasn’t that hard, even going uphill, I’d gone harder at this in training. I lead entering Manchester Road and followed the arrow to start climbing the hill. Here it became more like a walk, even a scramble, as I tried to maintain my position and follow the arrows. People behind me were stopping and looking out. Part of me wondered if they were admiring the view. I took a right and looked up the hill. It seemed to be the only path, leading up to a stone cross and a seat of some description. I scrambled up past a couple of walkers, past the structures, along the top of the moor. I was way out in front, and putting distance, real distance, in front of everyone. ‘Get over the hill, and you can potentially start putting daylight in‘, I pondered, scarcely believing I was in such a position this early on. Only, the race was actually disappearing from grasp. You see, wherever I had gone, I was headed towards Pule Hill. Well, the yellow flags and arrows weren’t in abundance here. In fact, it had been a short while since the last one. Unsure, I started running back. I came across the walkers again. They pointed where the other runners had gone. But it was too late. No one was around. I was up, on the moor, with only my mobile phone and, for some reason, my bank card. Survival instinct kicked in. Miraculously, I had a phone signal, and GPS. I didn’t think I would get a signal up here. I decided I had to get back onto the road. I had to get to Diggle and get my bag back. So there I was, taking in what for a short while was an introduction to the big 20 mile road/trail run I’m planning next month, much sooner than I anticipated. Manchester Road is wide, very wide, though not as much as the swathing expanse around me. Onward I went, periodically checking to see how much distance I had before reaching the Diggle Hotel.
Eventually, I passed by Redbrook Reservoir. I admired the view, deciding as I’m not racing I’ll start taking pictures. Heck, I’ve paid my race fee and I’ll do what I like! But it was shortly afterwards I spotted a walker in the distance. And other runners! I could get back! I got down off the kerb. Oof…my left achilles gave a bit of a jab. I was OK. I decided I had to get across. But how? Well, certainly not by swimming. I decided to go beside the right of the reservoir (or left, if looking north). The grass was very long. There were lots of mounds and ditches. Reeds. It was arduous. I had to cross a drain. But I made it! I was back on course. My achilles wasn’t fully in the game though. I trod carefully. I passed runners who were coming back to do their second route. Including some of those at the front. Well done, encouraged some. I explained to some that I’d got lost. The 001 on my vest felt somewhat ironic. Eventually, I descended into Diggle. Onto the road. Past the hotel. Over a bridge. Left, then finally towards the canal. I don’t remember seeing a finish line. Only Wane. Well, I was 5th from last. It had taken me over an hour. I don’t normally finish that far down in a race. But I still beat the barge comfortably, and I still got my chip butty. I bumped into Sarah again. She seemed surprised to have finished ahead of me. And unsurprisingly, the first to point out I’d got lost at a Team OA event. AGAIN. Well, I had no one to blame but myself for this one.
Take a look here at my race. The first image is my route on the day, about turns included. The second image is from the event page on Team OA’s website.
You can see where I went wrong and had I continued in that direction, I’d have had a healthy lead but may well have lost it later on, and if not perhaps come in a few minutes ahead, which may have raised a few eyebrows!
The Diggle Hotel do amazing chip butties. I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Anyhow, a swift pint later, it was time to head back. I’d given consideration to getting the train, as I wasn’t sure about my achilles. But Sarah and her friend Nadine were heading back, and Sarah offered to show me to correct way back around the course. I agreed to stick to my original plan. So we walked up the hill, and at the top, we started running. Once we passed Redbrook Reservoir, we were on the track I should have been on. An auspicious introduction to the Pennine Way. Over Old Mount Road, offering incredible views of the Holme Valley, and then back through the moor section I should have come through on. It turned out it hadn’t taken me long to go wayward and where I went uphill, if memory serves me right, I should have gone left. In the end, all back safely to Standedge Visitor Centre, and we jogged one more time to Marsden rail station to head back into Huddersfield with all the real ale trailers, before parting ways to head back home, to have a hot bath, check on my achilles and make a stonking great sweet potato and black kale chicken curry from scratch with all natural ingredients. Oh yeah!
I refused to feel too negative about the race, accepting that, on this occasion, there can be no fault attributed to anyone bar myself. It did serve as ‘recce’ if nothing else, and after the palava of the race had finished, the run back was far more enjoyable. The race as an event itself – I can’t honestly give it my full appraisal because I didn’t take the correct route. From an organisational standpoint it was good, and the route was sufficiently flagged and waymarked. It seemed like a great event, maybe just a bit of an anti-climax after my personal race plan, if there was one, went belly up. I enjoy pushing myself – I wouldn’t race if I didn’t. Well, the race is back on next year. I’ve technically run this race once. Whether I want to again – that depends. I’ve nothing to prove. It would be easy to say ‘let’s go back and smash it’. I’m not that competitive. Its meant to be a fun race, though the fun is racing a barge that over 5 miles will always, even if I go the wrong way again, finish long after I’ve reached the end and started tucking into the chip butty. Beyond that, its actually a tough little race, though rewarding once you get over the big hill (the right way) and can marvel the scenery.
All in all, I felt in fine shape the day after, the achilles, the subject of a lot of stretching, massaging, icing, and the incredible anti-inflammatory curry, perhaps pushed me to go ahead and recce somewhere else. As in, completely away.
After walking in the Yorkshire Dales the previous week, and with parental responsibility at home temporarily in stasis, I did what only my lunatic mindset could do. I did a recovery run/walk – mostly uphill – so I could catch a bus…4.3 miles later, I boarded the 590 bus to the village of Gale near Littleborough…and proceeded to walk another 11 plus miles! I decided I wanted to recce one of my forthcoming routes, The Pennine Way from Littleborough. I walked a steady pace, all the way to Stoodley Pike, where I sat down, ate my lunch, and enjoyed the view. Is there anywhere better?
It felt incredible. Not quite alone, but as good as free of civilization as, well, the previous week, but this was truly out there for me. I hadn’t laid a foot on the Pennine Way until this weekend, and here I was, free to experience its views, its panoramas, its peaks, troughs, trails, landmarks and other features. It was good to learn what to expect when I run this route later in the year. It felt sufficiently hilly to get the relevant training under my belt from this one route. That said, it was quite a culture shock to suddenly return to a busy town centre once I completed my descent!
Going forward now, I recognise my need to rest. My achilles and my left knee both need a little attention and next Saturday is when my training goes up a gear, around a route for which ‘hilly’ is an understatement. Therefore I may drop my run on Tuesday just to allow for something else, like swimming perhaps, or maybe just rest and workout at home.
For the record, this past weekend marked four years since my mother passed away. I’d have loved to have given her a race win or a good result on Saturday. But forever I’ll be grateful for her gift in passing – running. Because what I experienced this weekend was a continuation of my evolution of running. Taking myself to places and heights I never imagined I could previously imagine on my own two feet (and a bus pass). To reinforce my resolve to never give in even when all has gone to pot, to open up my mind to new ideas, new challenges, and to go outside and actually live. To breathe the clean air, feel the earth beneath my feet, to get mud halfway up my legs and to occasionally get drenched in some horrid deluge just for the sake of going for a run or a walk. To sign up for steeper and tougher challenges even when the brain is shouting ‘you fool, don’t do it!’. It got me off my backside, fit again, mentally and physically stronger. And I’m still here despite the ups and downs. So thank you Mum, for inspiring the adventure, and continually sharing the journey, and the influence.